BNS Productions tackles race, family, identity in “Fences”

The theater company delves into more work from playwright August Wilson that explores African-American experiences.

One of the amazing things about the arts is the timeliness of the themes within it. Charlotte playwright Rory Sheriff explores family dynamics, self-identity and social commentary in Brand New Sheriff Productions’ rendition of August Wilson’s “Fences,” opening Feb. 6.

Originally staged in 1985 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, “Fences” is a critically acclaimed piece falling within renowned playwright August Wilson’s 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle. The Cycle, which featured nine plays set in Pittsburgh’s historically African-American Hill District and one in Chicago, aimed to raise consciousness through theater by showcasing African-American life across several decades.

“Fences” is set in 1950s Pittsburgh and tells the story of Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League star who now works as a garbage collector. Audiences see how Maxson’s life experiences play a role in current relationships with his family and struggles within himself.

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Graham Williams portrays Lyons Maxson during a scene preview of “Fences” at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture’s MLK Day Celebration on Jan. 20, 2020. Photo: QCity Metro

Wilson’s work struck a chord with Sheriff, who founded BNS Productions seven years ago.

“We want to be the voice of the African-American experience in Charlotte to show that we are professionals, that our stories are great, and that they can line up with the best Broadway shows,” he said.

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The military veteran made a few attempts to break into the movie industry, first shopping a movie script around Los Angeles. He was interested in doing an adaptation of “The Wiz.” Rather than moving forward with the movie idea, a producer gauged his interest in turning the movie script into a cartoon or play. That conversation was the beginning of BNS Productions.

“All of the bells and whistles went off, and the first image I saw was Tyler Perry,” Sheriff said. “He put his work on stage and took off, so I figured that would be the path that I take.”

Since then, Sheriff has written and directed original scripts, including “Be a Lion” and “Boys Over Baghdad.” In addition to “Fences,” he’s also produced two other August Wilson classics, “Jitney” and “Two Trains Running.”

“As an artistic director, I have to keep my ear to the pulse of Charlotte and what our people want to see and experience with plays,” explained Sheriff, who holds a playwright residency at the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square. “We take some of the great Black plays that haven’t been [in Charlotte] and expose my work as well.”

Local actors Jonavan Adams and Leshea Nicole star as lead characters Troy and Rose Maxson, roles that garnered Tony Awards for James Earl Jones, Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. BNS fans may remember the lead actors from the 2019 production of “Two Trains Running.”

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Jonavan Adams and Leshea Nicole as Troy and Rose Maxson. Photo: Chau Nguyen

“The chemistry is already there. It was kind of hard to beat that chemistry, so we built around it,” Sheriff said.

He hopes that audiences walk away feeling deeply connected to the play’s relevant messages.

“The characters that August Wilson writes, I personally know as they’re either family members, folks that grew up in the neighborhood, or I am one of these characters,” Sheriff explained. “I hope everyone gets a message to inspire, help, or even minister to the things they’re going through.”

“Fences” runs Feb. 6-15 at the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. Purchase tickets at carolinatix.org, $28.